Hewitt launches ‘gimmicky’ patient choice website

Disadvantaged groups will benefit most from new government initiatives designed to extend patient choice in the NHS, the health secretary Patricia Hewitt has claimed.

Unveiling an internet-focused approach to patient choice, Ms Hewitt promised that disadvantaged groups would be able to access the service, announcing plans to train librarians to help people use the new patient choice website.

Billed as a flagship public services website, Patient Choices will go live in the summer. It features comprehensive information designed to help patients choose the best place for their treatment, including data on hospital waiting times and cleanliness.

It is also designed to help patients maintain their long-term health, featuring health assessments, advice on managing common conditions and ‘magazine’ style features.

To help patients make the most of this information, Choice Library pilots will take place across the UK, with the aim that librarians will eventually help service-users navigate Patient Choices.

Visiting a library pilot in Wood Green, London, Ms Hewitt said: “We are determined to put patients at the heart of the NHS and making sure patients can access and share information about health services is a crucial part of that. Patients will soon be able to choose, with the click of a button, where they want to have their treatment. Our new choice website will allow the public and clinicians to access a range of information through one super site that will act as a gateway to navigate NHS services.

“Patient choice is about people being in control. Patients needing a hospital appointment should have the right to pick and choose their time, date and place. To make this happen, we need to invest in facilities to help patients take control. Using public libraries and the internet is an ideal way to support patients, families and carers with information.”

However, the Conservatives have questioned whether the most disadvantaged Britons really will access the new service, pointing out that the poor and elderly are least likely to use the internet.

Shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley said: “Patients really need to access information about hospitals, not in a library, but at the point of referral, in their GP surgery, so that they can discuss with their GP the best place for their treatment.”

Mr Lansley also accused Ms Hewitt of launching Patient Choices to detract from the wider failings in the NHS IT system. “Patricia Hewitt is simply trying to hide the fact that Labour’s costly Choose and Book system, which should be delivering this, is running years behind schedule,” he said.

The Liberal Democrats accused the Department of Health of “gimmickry”, although welcomed moves to provide patients with the information needed to make an informed choice.

Lib Dem health spokesman Norman Lamb said: “Some of these initiatives smack of gimmickry. How can a librarian match the guidance given by a highly trained GP?

“Rather than promoting a website offering people a superficial choice between different hospitals, we must genuinely engage with patients about decisions regarding their treatment and the most appropriate clinician.”

Ms Hewitt also announced today that hip operation patients will enjoy patient choice one year ahead of schedule.

Patient choice currently allows people to choose between four local hospitals, but from April 2008 they will be able to undergo treatment at any hospital meeting NHS standards and costs.